Early Rabbinic Judaism
2nd EAJS Summer Colloquium, Yarnton Manor, 22nd to 26th September 1997.
A successful colloquium was held in Yarnton Manor in September by the European Centre for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization. It was convened by Martin Goodman (Oxford) and Philip Alexander (Manchester), under the auspices to the EAJS.
The colloquium, on the theme of Early Rabbinic Judaism, was attended by over forty scholars from France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, England, Wales, Israel and the United States. The twenty-six speakers approached the study of rabbinic Judaism in the six centuries after the destruction of the Temple from a great variety of perspectives. Papers focused both on very specific issues and on more general methodological questions. Subjects tackled included (among others) the relationship of rabbinic texts to evidence (literary and archaeological) from the non-Jewish world; the history of the transmission of Talmudic texts; the dating of texts and their structural analysis; the relationship between Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation; the analysis of rabbinic liturgical behaviour as described in the texts; the historical background to rabbinic vocabulary; the nature of the targumim as literary products; the relation of rabbinic law to the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the use of computers in the exploration of rabbinic literature. It became apparent that no single approach to the teaching of the subject is possible or desirable. In the extended discussion much practical information was exchanged about the resources available for scholars and teachers.
Extract from Summary of the Colloquium:
“How do we convey to our students the body of knowledge which we call Early Rabbinic Judaism? First, I would like to stress the importance of languages. It is perfectly clear from all the papers we have heard that knowledge of the original languages is vital. The kind of work that was presented to us is impossible without a high level of linguistic competence. If access to the texts in their original languages is important at a research level, then it should be important at the level of teaching as well. Within the higher education system, at least in Britain, there is a strong bias against the learning of foreign languages. Languages have been dropped in many subjects where once they were a requirement. Foreign languages are increasingly being taught in translation. I think that somehow we have to fight to maintain the centrality of language acquisition to the teaching of our discipline.
Second, the content of our teaching should comprise both a body of information and a set of analytical tools. The body of information is provisional and changes as research develops. The tools are, in my view, more fixed. It is important that we convey to our students the provisional nature of the information we give them, and train them in the use of a variety of analytical methods, which will allow them to construct their own view of Early Rabbinic Judaism.
Third, we must respect what I would call the historical evolution of the discipline. This brings me back to the point that applying cultural studies approaches may be premature in the field of Rabbinics. We practice our particular craft within universities. But universities are evolving institutions. Moreover, they are institutions in which different disciplines are evolving at different speeds. This is a direct function of the application of resources. It is inevitable that large fields, such as the literary criticism of the major world literatures, which have huge manpower, should develop faster than smaller fields like our own, and should in a sense make the intellectual running. I do not think this should worry us unduly. We cannot short-circuit this process. If I might illustrate by an analogy: It used to be thought, I believe, that the foetus as it develops in the womb, recapitulates the various stages of human evolution. The same may be said of any discipline in the humanities. Broadly speaking, all have to pass through the same stages of development. So it is in our field. We must be careful not to force the pace of development too hard. If we do so, if we try to skip certain stages, we are likely to end up with an abortion.
There is a final observation I would like to make, and it relates to the growing technicalization of our field of study. Knowledge is accumulating at an alarming rate. Subjects which twenty years ago were only beginning to be broached, so that one scholar could basically encompass all that there was to know about them, are now so complex that doctoral students are working in one corner of them. Heikhalot mysticism is a case in point. This accumulation of knowledge, this growing technicalization and specialization within the field, has the effect of carrying research ever further from the grasp of students. The problem is exacerbated by an absence of textbooks. I know that the writing of textbooks carries little kudos in our discipline, and may not be a smart career move, but I think we all need to take seriously the problem of how to bridge the widening gap between research and the classroom. If we do not write textbooks, I can assure you that others less qualified will certainly try. The dangers of such pseudo-scholarship are well illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I would like to leave you with a slogan which for me sums up what we should be trying to do. It is taken from the distinguished American literary critic Lionel Trilling. Trilling suggested that the purpose of scholarship should be ‘to give our notion of history an appropriate complication’. That surely puts it in a nutshell. The aim of our research is to achieve ‘an appropriate complication’; the aim of our teaching is to convey that sense of complication to our students.